The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday repealing most of the District's gun laws, in a vote that handed an election-season victory to gun rights groups and was denounced by the city's leaders as a historic violation of home rule.
By a vote of 250 to 171, the House passed the D.C. Personal Protection Act, which would end the District's 1976 ban on handguns and semiautomatic weapons, roll back registration requirements for ammunition and decriminalize possession of unregistered weapons and possession of guns in homes or workplaces.
The bill also would prohibit the mayor and D.C. Council from enacting gun limits that exceed federal law or "discourage . . . the private ownership or use of firearms."
The measure now goes to the Senate, where it has almost no chance of passing. With little more than a week before Congress recesses for the fall campaign, only major legislation and uncontroversial measures are likely to reach the floor, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has indicated.
But gun rights groups plan to use the House vote in campaign literature to mobilize supporters.
Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), the bill's sponsor, called the vote a bipartisan victory for District residents' constitutional right to bear arms. During an hour-long debate, Souder and his allies referred to Washington as the "nation's murder capital" more than a dozen of times, arguing that the city's homicide rate shows that its restrictions on guns are ineffective.
Bill supporters note that the D.C. homicide rate was 72 percent higher in 2001 than it was in 1976, while the national rate had dropped by 36 percent. Opponents say that the D.C. rate is at a 20-year low and has fallen 55 percent since 1994.
"The D.C. handgun ban . . . has failed miserably. This bill is demanded by the people of the United States," Souder said. "Only the District of Columbia prohibits a person from having a firearm assembled and loaded at home for the purpose of self-defense."
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) assailed the "ludicrous logic . . . that gun safety laws cause murders" and said the vote amounted to political grandstanding. She and other opponents of the bill said increasing the supply of guns would undermine homeland security initiatives, lead to more bloodshed in a city in which 16 children have been shot to death this year and trample the unanimous will of the District's elected leaders, police chief and school superintendent.
"I have seen various members of Congress try to do some low-down, dirty, mean things to the people of the District of Columbia, all to promote their own political agendas against the will of the people who live here," Norton said. "That we are here discussing this matter is yet a new low."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) also spoke against the bill, noting that 97 percent of the guns used in crimes in the District come from beyond the city borders. "No one should question the importance of keeping fully loaded assault weapons off the streets of the District," Davis said. "There is an important place for debate on D.C. gun laws -- that is in the chambers of the D.C. Council, not the Congress."
Voting for the bill were 198 Republicans and 52 Democrats. Opposed were 148 Democrats, 22 Republicans and one independent.
In a sign of how the politics of gun control have changed in Congress, the vote was almost the opposite of a 1999 House attempt to repeal the District's gun laws, which failed 250 to 175. Thirty-four House members -- 24 Republicans and 10 Democrats -- who voted five years ago to preserve the city laws switched sides and co-sponsored Souder's bill.
They include Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.), locked in a tough battle in a redrawn district; Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio), now chairman of the House GOP conference; and Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.), who represents a swing district based in Louisville.
"For House Democrats sitting in rural or conservative districts who are worried about being labeled as culturally out of step with their districts, this is their one opportunity to make a vote on the gun issue and cement their image among voters," said Amy Walter, House elections analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington.